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Americans Make Serious First Ascent in the Revelations—After Six Years of Effort

The East Face of Golgotha brought avalanches, vertical snow climbing, tent-bound whippers, and more.

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Alaska’s Revelation Mountains are a challenging place to have a project. Its granite walls are as steep as they come; its coastal weather brings volatile wind and snowstorms; and finding a pilot brave enough to fly you in requires persuasion, bribery, and luck.

If you ever do get into “The Revs,” and you muster the gumption to tackle any number of the virgin, highly committing objectives that grace the range, leave some gas for the climbing itself: the snow is steeper than it looks, the rock less featured than you’d hope, and a straightforward descent doesn’t mean you are out of the woods. Just ask Clint Helander and Andres Marin.

Mt. Golgotha in Alaska's Revelation Mountains.
The East Face of Golgotha, with The Shaft of the Abyss visible as the narrow runnel splitting the center of the face. The team descended the southeast face to the couloir on the left. (Photo: Clint Helander)

On March 25, Helander, of Anchorage, Alaska, and Marin, of Ouray, Colorado, finished off a six-year project in their beloved Revelations. The Shaft of the Abyss (VI AI 5R M5 A0 90° snow; 4,000 feet) follows an obvious, direct line up the East Face of Golgotha (8,937 feet), a line which Helander had schemed and dreamed about since he first saw the mountain in 2008. Back then, Golgotha was entirely unclimbed and utterly terrifying to the then-23-year-old, who was climbing with his friend and mentor, Seth Holden. The pair made a pact to one day climb its East Face together: a goal so challenging and serious it would require years of commitment to the Revelations to see it through. Holden was killed in a plane crash in Alaska two years later, before he and Helander could really begin their preparation.

Helander has now flown into the Revelations on 12 occasions with different partners to attempt first ascents. In 2011, he succeeded on the West Face of Mt. Mausolus (9,170 feet) with Scotty Vincik, an experience he recounts with melancholic enthusiasm in “Winning and Losing in the Revelations,” which appeared in Climbing in 2011. The following spring, in 2012, he finally set foot on Golgotha’s East Face with Ben Trocki, climbing partway up what would become In the Shadow of the Abyss before turning around due to snow mushrooms and precarious blocks. As they retreated, a snow-bound couloir to their left suddenly urged them upwards: “Instead of crossing the bergschrund to our tent, we continued up [the couloir]. Several hours later, we crested the final ridge and stood on the summit in a gale. I felt no victory, no lasting sense of fulfillment. Golgotha had been too easy,” Helander later wrote on “I wish we’d gone down: I’d compromised my ideal of a first ascent via the East Face for a lesser definition of success.” Helander ended the article with some questions: What would Seth [Holden] do? Would he go back? Will I go back?

Helander sure did return, four times, in fact, with Andres Marin. In 2016 a poorly placed camp at the base of the face left them vulnerable to avalanches that repeatedly rocked their camp, nearly killing them. Their pilot had dropped them off in a narrow cirque—in hindsight, the very definition of a terrain trap—and they cowered under a rock for nearly a week, while more snow cleaved off of Golgotha, until their pilot was able to return and save them. They returned again in 2017, and despite bailing due to a broken crampon halfway up the route they gleaned invaluable beta about where one of the crux pitches was and (more importantly) where to safely pitch their basecamp: on the main Revelation Glacier, a mile or so from the Misfit Glacier’s terrain trap. Another attempt in 2018 ended before it truly began, thanks to heavy snow and high winds. Marin said that of the 40 days he’s spent in the area, 32 of those have held “not just shitty weather, but extremely shitty weather.” The Revs are indeed a hard place to have a project.

Climber in Alaska.
Marin follows high on In the Shadow of the Abyss. (Photo: Clint Helander)

But in March of this year their long-dreamed-of weather window arrived. They left their basecamp, rappelled the thousand feet to the base of the East Face, and took off in alpine style. The duo carried enough food and fuel for two nights, sleeping bags, a tent, a double rack of cams, an assortment of pitons, eight ice screws, “wing” ice tool attachments for the vertical snow pitches, two half ropes, and a tagline (which they were grateful for since the physical, overhanging nature of the route necessitated hauling).

Alpinist climbs into steep snow cave on Alaskan mountain.
Marin pulls in to their spacious chockstone bivy on the first day. (Photo: Clint Helander)

They began climbing steep ground almost immediately, following a deep, water-worn groove that buffed the granite clean of face holds and, largely, any protection. “The gear was pretty thin—whatever you did get,” Marin said. Several mixed pitches bookended vertical sections of firm névé and, unfortunately, equally steep snow climbing that demanded great care to ascend. They reached their bivy below a spacious chockstone on day one and relished in the luxury of a protected, harness-off bivy in the mountains. The next day brought the crux pitch, another overhanging chockstone, which Helander surmounted by tunneling behind it into a small cave and then via an exposed exit of the front. The poor gear and seriousness of the position left Helander dreaming of a grappling hook to pull safely through, though Marin assured us that the pitch would be a classic “in a more controlled environment.”

With the crux behind them, several pitches of steep simul climbing and tricky mixed terrain led them to their second bivy: protected by a rock but no comfortable ledge like the previous night. Exhausted from their two-day effort, they chopped a snow ledge almost large enough for their two-person tent, clipped their tent to a rock anchor, and Helander eagerly jumped inside. He was about to take off his harness (which was clipped into their anchor) to put on another pair of insulated pants when he stopped, left the harness on, and readjusted himself by scooting further back into the corner of the tent. He sat back onto air and the tent was ripped off the ledge—it swung down into the couloir and shock loaded the anchor. “That decision to keep my harness on definitely saved my life,” he said. Helander frantically hand-over-handed his lanyard up the 50-degree snow in his boot liners, got redressed, and chopped out a wider tent platform.

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The third day brought more technical terrain, including a slabby downclimb on a shell of ice (which Marin was tasked with down leading) and, finally, the summit. A relatively easy four-hour descent down a couloir brought them back to the Misfit Glacier where they reascended the 1,000 feet back to their basecamp—except their kitchen tent was nowhere to be found.

Two climbers on the summit of Mt. Golgotha in Alaska.
On the summit of Golgotha, for the mountain’s third ascent. (Photo: Clint Helander)

While they had been climbing on the wind-protected East Face, a fierce southwesterly wind event had raked their camp, scattering their food, shelter, and equipment far across the Revelations. Their hopes of a celebratory dinner suddenly dashed, the pair searched (and dug) for their remaining supplies until 1:30 am that morning. The next day, they found a tent fly and a little bit of food, and spent the next five days waiting for a pilot to pick them up. “Pilots don’t always fly into the Revs,” Marin said. “You need to be, like, a 5.15 pilot.” Brief weather windows and dubious runway quality left the climber’s in limbo, unsure of when they would be able to leave, but Rob Jones of Hesperus Air eventually provided them with a way home. “The Revelations just don’t quit,” Marin said. Indeed, it would be a tough place to have a project.

Anthony Walsh is a digital editor at Climbing.